Prologue

 

MID-MAY IN the Roaring Fork Valley was stunning. All the wildflowers were blooming up in the high meadows around them, and down in Glenwood it was nice but not too warm to hit the Hot Springs Pool.

It was also boom time for the Leanin’ N Ranch, which meant Ford Nixel spent more time on the phone with wedding planners and team builders than he did listening to clients talk about environmental law.

He chuckled at himself. No one on earth would have thought that his happy ass would be sitting here, earphone in, trying to make the big deals that kept the ranch afloat. Not him. Not for a second, but it was what he was doing, and he was over the moon about it.

“Leanin’ N Ranch, this is Ford,” he said into the mouthpiece.

“Mr. Ford, this is Mason O’Reilly from Rustic Romance. We worked together on the Stephens/Belen wedding?”

“Of course.” He’d really enjoyed working with Mason, even if Stoney thought the man was a little… bossy.

“I’m trying to plan a rather large event for mid-June, and I was wondering if the Leanin’ N had any availability.”

“What are your dates?” A large event in mid-June would be great. They were surprisingly wedding bare right now.

“I’m hoping for the smack dab center. I need room for two fifty for four days and probably four or five cabins for the week before.”

“Two fifty.” Holy shit. He picked up his extra cell and texted Stoney: Get in here. “So, is this a wedding?”

“It is. I haven’t spoken to the couple yet, but the corporation sent my assistant numbers, if you get me.”

His phone mooed: Omw

“Right. So we can probably accommodate them all, but some lodgings might be rustic. Then again, your folks love rustic.”

See him stall.

“That is my sweet spot. These guys want the whole redneck wedding—horses, mason jars, burlap, shiplap, doughnut walls. All of it. Live band at the rehearsal dinner and the wedding. I’m willing to price out other hotels if we can get shuttles.”

“We absolutely can. We have a guy who has everything from buses to limos to sleighs. We also have access to yurts.” He loved that word—yurt.

He heard the sound of Stoney’s boots on the hardwood, and his own personal cowboy came zooming around the corner.

Ford held up a hand, then pointed to his notepad, which read wedding, 250.

His husband’s eyes went huge, just wide as saucers. “No shit?” he whispered.

Ford nodded. “So, we can definitely talk turkey, Mason. You mind if I put you on speaker so Stoney can sit in?”

“Of course not. You know I live to torture your man.”

“I do know that.” He hit Speaker, winking at Stoney at the same time. “Okay, let’s talk yurts.”

“We can do all sorts of fancy-assed tents and such. They got some amazing toilet options and all. They even got showers.” Ah, his classy man.

Mason chuckled warmly. “Okay, then what I’ll do is send them the options and get you a firm number of overnight guests. I’ll need food for the whole two fifty for the wedding, and they want just the kind of dishes your chef does, so rather than hiring a catering company, I wanted to give him the chance to hire in waitstaff and sous chefs for the event.”

“We’ll get you a quote by the end of the week.”

“I need to give these guys an answer Thursday. Can you get me a number Wednesday?”

“I’ll need the exact numbers today,” Ford countered.

“I can do that. I have an inhumanly efficient assistant.”

“You’re such a lawyer,” Stoney whispered.

Ford winked. He wheeled and dealed. That was his job. Negotiation. It had served him well with his stepson too, because ten was the age at which boys began to bargain for things. “Good deal. I’ll have a proposal to you Wednesday, with some options for housing here and shuttling in guests.”

“Thanks, man. You know I love working with you guys. You’re my first choice. Don’t let me down.”

“Little butthead,” Stoney mouthed.

“We got this, Mason. Thanks for the opportunity.”

“Tell your husband I don’t need any of the wedding party dumped into the watering trough this time.”

Ford held back a bark of laughter. “You got it. I’ll talk to you soon, Mason.”

He hung up and sat back in his chair. “Two hundred and fifty guests, babe.”

“Jesus. That’s… that’s a lot of folks.” Stoney plopped down in a chair, staring at him. “A lot a lot.”

“Mason says we can do shuttles if we have to, and he’ll price out Aspen and Glenwood hotels. The bulk of it will be the wedding day, right? Food, tents for the bride and groom parties, a couple fancy portable bathrooms with sinks and all.” Ford began making notes.

“We need to call Geoff in here, honey. We’ll have to hire in help too.”

“I know. We’ll need to slam together a total budget pretty quick.” Ford felt a surge of adrenaline go through him. He did love a challenge.

“Look at you, all riled up, and it’s gonna be wasted on writing a proposal….”

“Oh, you know paperwork revs my engine, baby. I get all hot and bothered when I tally up the profit margins.” He waggled his eyebrows at Stoney. “I’ll be especially hot if you get Geoff to make pizza.”

“You and your pizza.” His own personal Texan stood up, walked over, and leaned down to kiss him like the world was about to end.

He slid one hand up around the back of Stoney’s head to hold him in place. This was what really got Ford fired up. His husband, his kid, his ranch. Home. He loved that they were making a go of it. The kiss ended reluctantly, their lips separating with a pop.

“Mmm. Okay, that was worth a pizza. You want sausage?” Stoney waggled his eyebrows just like Ford had.

“Always.” Ford winked. “You get Geoff, and I’ll call Angie up so we can all plan together?”

“On it.” Sure enough, his cowboy was on that phone, texting so fast his thumbs blurred.

Cowboys and cell phones. Lord.

It was like peanut butter and jelly, but with Wrangler butts. Oh, woo. What a thought.

He picked up his phone to call down to the barn office to get Angie up. The livestock manager answered with a husky laugh.

“He’s already texted me, boss.”

“Oh man. He’s so fast. Is Tanner down there?”

“He’s got Quartz in the stalls mucking.”

“Oh, good deal. Okay. See you in a few.” Ford hung up with Angie and opened his laptop so he could get a doc going to record this brainstorm.

He glanced at Stoney. That was the best part of his job. His life. Right there.

“They’re coming, honey. You’re thinking hard. What’s causing that smoke pouring out of your ears?”

“Just thinking about peanut butter and jelly, baby.”

Stoney raised a brow. “You’re hungry?”

“Not that way. Too bad we’re about to have a meeting….” He let Stoney figure that one out.

He got a look—one that said that at some point, they would be alone together and he would have a prayer meeting with his favorite cowboy.

Ford tried for angelic. He figured it came off more devilish, but one way or the other, he was going to end up getting what he needed.

 

 


Chapter One

 

“MASON, ARE you coming into the office today?”

Mason rolled his eyes hard enough he felt his optic nerves stretch. “Absolutely. No problem. You do have it on your calendar that I’m in fucking Denver, right, Trev?”

“OMG. This is your goddaughter’s birthday party. I had that as next week!”

Did people really say OMG? Like out loud? “Why haven’t I fired you yet, Trev?”

“Because no one else can put up with the hillbillies you party plan for and keep most of the deets in line.” Trevor’s voice dripped sarcasm.

“Right. The key word here being most.” He grabbed a bunch of grapes, along with a watermelon for Jaycee’s watermelon shark basket thing.

He’d never planned a shark-themed party before, but for that little girl? Anything.

“Hey, you keep changing your personal schedule. That is not my prob.”

“What did you need, man?” He texted Rick as he talked and shopped: Do you guys have a melon baller?

“I need you to approve the email I sent about the Preston/Wright wedding. I had to adjust the budget to include cornholing.”

God, he loved that these rich, fancy-assed people were having to add cornholing to their line items. “Sure. I’ll look at it in the next twenty minutes or so. Is that Maydell lady still giving you troubles?”

“Not today. I do need to send her that quote, though. Where does one get cornhole boards made?”

“Talk to Leanin’ N. They might have some, but their hand, Tanner, is a great woodworker.”

The text beeped in with Duh.

He shot back: I was assuming you queens weren’t a cliché. Do you need anything not party-related while I’m out?

“Okay. They want a bunch personalized, plus one just for them.”

“What? A bunch of boards?”

“Yes.” Trev sighed. “Are you paying attention?”

“No. I am shopping for a shark party. In Denver. This is a challenge. See what Tanner would charge.”

“Will do. You’ll be back Monday?”

“I’m driving home Sunday afternoon, yeah.”

Jefferson needs Virgil Root Beer

Lord, Jefferson was a spoiled brat and the dearest man alive.

On it. Diet or regular?

“Okay. Well, have fun at the shark party. Tell everyone I said hi.”

“Will do. They’ll be up in August, for sure.”

The zero

Got it

“Oh, good.” Trev chuckled. “I swear to God, boss, if this lady calls me one more time….”

“I know. I know. Just remember this wedding is paying your salary for a year.” The Wright Corporation was ginormous, this wedding a huge feather in his little event-planning cap.

“You know better. I’ll be sweetness and light. By-eee.”

He shook his head, grabbed some strawberries and, ooh, cherries. He’d pit them and put them in the shark for a little blood action.

His goddaughter was a little bloodthirsty and the light of his life.

The phone rang again, Ford Nixel’s name showing up, so Mason swiped. “Hey, there. What’s up?”

“Hey, man. Are you busy? I need to talk to you about the site visit this next week.”

“I have time.” Multitasking was his life.

“Cool. We have a big party in while the site inspection is going on. A one-day yoga retreat.”

“That shouldn’t be an issue at all. In fact, I may need a little savasana.”

“Yes, well, I just wanted to warn you. These guys are… naked a lot.”

Mason stumbled and damn near ran into an endcap of Cheez-Its. “Th-thanks for the warning.”

Jesus Christ on a crutch.

“I’m sorry, Mason. I couldn’t turn these guys down. Repeat clients. I can totally have someone to help you avoid pitfalls.”

“Ford, I’m a healthy gay man with an appreciation for the male form. I won’t run screaming. I promise.” Spring wood? Maybe. It had been a while.

“Not you. Your client. I mean, who are they sending to do the walk-through? If it’s the Maydell lady, we could be in deep trouble.”

“I’m going to do a virtual walk-through, and then I’ll schedule things with you while I’m there.”

“Ah, so no one is coming up from the wedding party?”

“Apparently they’re leaving everything to me. The entire wedding party will arrive the week of the ceremony.”

“Wow. That’s…. I hope you have a real grasp of what they want.”

“You and me both, man.” He didn’t really have a choice, did he? No. These guys wanted a rustic, fun, high-class redneck wedding, and Mason intended to give it to them.

“Well, then I won’t worry about the walk-through. I was just wanting to tell you in case the client was coming.”

“I appreciate it. I’m going to come Tuesday, yeah? That’s on your calendar?” He grabbed mixed nuts to spice, some tortilla chips, and…. Pace. There. Excellent.

“Yep. Stoney has it circled in red. Geoff will have a tasting for you.” Ford sounded pretty relieved.

“Oh, you know Geoff is one of my favorite people on the planet.” Hrm. Did he want to do super kitschy and make pizza rolls? Jaycee loved them, and her dads never let her have them.

“Any requests? You kinda left the menu up to him, save the deviled eggs.”

“I want hard-core, upscale redneck. I mean, I want over-the-top.” He threw the pizza rolls in the cart.

“Geoff loves a challenge.” Ford chuckled now, clearly more relaxed.

“Tell him to go wild. We can brainstorm Tuesday.”

“Sounds great. Thanks, man. Later.” Ford clicked out, and Mason pondered pudding cups.

His job as the godfather was to spoil her in every way possible, and he took it very seriously. She loved butterscotch pudding.

So did Jefferson. Into the cart.

Swiss cake rolls for Rick and they were cooking with gas. Then he put in some M&M’s. Those were for him.

He was loaded for bear. Now he just had to go carve a sharktomelon for the prettiest five-year-old on earth.